From the Wasteland Rises Hope

This first appeared in Feminism and Religion, April 7, 2018

For millennia, humans have told stories of goddesses who have decreed that, because terrible crimes have been committed against their female loved ones or those under their protection, our world would become a desolate wasteland. They withdrew their spiritual power that made life possible so that no fruits or vegetables would grow to nourish us or no sunlight would warm our bodies. Only when justice was done did these goddesses heal the wasteland so human life could continue.

In ancient Greece, the youthful daughter Persephone was kidnapped from her idyllic wildflower meadow to the Underworld where she was raped by Hades.  Her mother, the great Earth goddess Demeter, wandered the world in great despair seeking her daughter while the crops withered and the people starved.  Only when Persephone was returned to live on the Earth was it again abundant.  Amaterasu, the Shinto Sun Goddess, hid her life-giving light when she was angered by her brother’s desecration of her queendom that resulted in a friend’s death.  Finally, when her brother was banished from heaven and she was lured from her cave and saw her sacredness and beauty in a mirror,  the sun’s rays nourished the Earth once more.  You may know of more stories from your own tradition.

Today we are experiencing a physical version of these mythical wastelands.  Farmlands turn to dust, glaciers melt, wars and industry leave gaping wounds in Earth’s skin and deep inside her belly.  We now have the weapons to destroy in the most savage ways those whom we hate or fear.  For the first time in human history, we can make the whole globe a real wasteland in all its forms. 

These stories were not, of course, intended to describe 21st century devastation. However, I do find within them deep truths about the roots of our modern calamity and  about women’s spiritual power, which I perceive of as the force that heals and promotes life and wholeness on individual, planetary, and cosmic levels by acting in a way that recognizes and honors the sacredness within ourselves and all beings. 

First, the stories demonstrate an essential connection between our own wasteland and a profound dishonoring of the spiritual power of women.  When the inherent worth and wisdom of half the population is devalued and ignored, the world becomes so out of balance and disordered that only catastrophe can result. When only a small number of people have all the power and do not respect the rights of other living entities to well being, exploitation is the inevitable result.  The connection between disdain for women and all who belong to politically, socially, and economically disempowered groups and the trashing of the Earth becomes even clearer when we look at the aggregate effect of environmental devastation on the lives of women and so many other marginalized people. 

These stories also speak to the nature of women’s spiritual power itself.  They tell women to never forget the importance of being healers for one another.  Baubo’s dance revealing her vulva makes Demeter laugh, igniting the beginning of the rebirth of the world. The bawdy dance of Uzume, the Japanese goddess of merriment, caused the ruckus that brought an amused and curious Amaterasu out of her cave to witness her own beauty. Listening deeply in circles, encouraging each other’s creative work, singing and dancing for and with each other; all of these and more are ways I see women giving each other the nurturing we all need to keep our spiritual power strong and fresh.

The goddesses in these stories have also been making the world harmonious and abundant forever, yet this is only recognized when they withhold the fruits of their power.  This reminds me that we must never forget that women’s spiritual work — what we do daily to bring harmony and well being to those in our families and communities whether part of our professional work, outside activism, or the hundreds of interactions we have each day — is often overlooked as essential to moving the world closer to beauty, peace and justice; these should be honored as most holy acts.

Finally, these stories give me hope that just as humanity has the power to create a wasteland, we, as women and as human beings, can also make our Earth a paradise. In these times when the end of our species and our planet as we know seems almost inevitable, these stories remind us that we have more power inside us than we realize and we have no choice but to try to bring forth the world we wish to live in for ourselves and future generations. By visualizing an Earth that is whole and sharing that vision with others by words, art, music, dance; working through the details of new models of governance and economics on a small scale in our own organizations and communities, running for office on platforms representing these values, and more we can all find ways to dedicate ourselves to make positive change on many levels. 

Those who first heard these stories of the wasteland millennia ago perhaps never imagined that it could be reality.  It is our time now, and we must find our own answers to turning back the world’s environmental and spiritual desolation.  This task is, of course, not women’s responsibility alone.  But, we can each find our own unique place in this work by every day, in our own way, healing each other, recognizing and honoring all we do and have done, and contributing everyday to our own vision of paradise.

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